The city clings to the steep sides of a V-shaped canyon in the Central Highlands of Mexico. And other than a narrow strip in the bottom of the canyon, the only way to go is up.
Put on your comfy shoes, because the steep hillsides mean that much of the town can only be reached on foot. It isn’t the most convenient of locations, but that can be explained in one word: silver. The city is Guanajuato, and even though the silver, and the silver barons, are long gone, its narrow streets, alleys, and small, picturesque plazas still make it a delightful destination.
Miners set up camp here around 1540, and the 1558 discovery of a large silver vein officially put Guanajuato (pronounced wah-nah-WHAH-toh) on the map. Although there was a bit of gold, the mines produced astronomical amounts of silver, making it the true “Mother Lode.” Estimates vary, but some experts say that from the 16-18th Centuries, Guanajuato’s mines produced a third of all the silver in the world. This silver filled the coffers of the Spanish king, and made the mine-owning families fabulously wealthy. And thanks to the silver barons’ wealth and largesse, attractive colonial mansions and elaborate churches still dominate the center.
But not all of Guanajuato’s charms are stately and grandiose. Thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status, most buildings in the historic center have been maintained as they were built, and the city’s Spanish colonial feel shines through.
The city has a relaxed small-town feel, and a large part of the center has been pedestrianized. With intimate pocket-parks around every corner there are plenty of spots to unwind and people-watch.
City residents and tourists alike venture out in the cool night to the Jardin de la Unión to visit one of the upscale restaurants, hang out with friends, listen to buskers, or just relax on a bench.
Guanajuato is also known for its callejónes (alleys). The only way to access many of the hillside houses is by trudging up these steep and colorful alleys.
One of these, the legendary Callejón de Beso (Alley of the Kiss) has houses separated by mere inches. The legend says that a couple of young lovers lived opposite each other, but because she was nobility and he was a common laborer the relationship was not to be. Inevitably the relationship was discovered, and the couple met a tragic end.
Guanajuato is a vibrant Spanish Colonial jewel, and its calm, casual feel make it the perfect off-the-path destination for afternoon rambles followed by a siesta on a shaded bench. If you’re in the highlands, don’t miss it.
James & Terri
Last updated January 5, 2020